The basic premise of The Better Liar, the smart and sassy debut thriller from Tanen Jones, is that a man has left a large sum of money to be divided between his two daughters, on the proviso that they both turn up together to be instructed by his lawyer. Not too much of a bind, you might think, but Robin and Leslie have not seen each other for half a lifetime. Leslie has stayed home, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, while Robin, with her killer looks and body, has cut herself off from home altogether and is, as the song goes, somewhere out there.
When their father dies after a long illness, Leslie sets out to find Robin and eventually tracks her down to a seedy apartment block in Las Vegas.One slight problem. Robin is face down on the bed in the cockroach infested room, dead of a drug overdose.
Leslie flees the scene, trying to process multiple emotions.It’s too much of a shock for her to face regretful recollections of her childhood with Robin, but not too soon for her to realise that she might be kissing goodbye to her share of her father’s legacy. Quite by random, she meets Mary, a young woman working as a waitress in a Vegas restaurant. Here’s the thing, though. Mary has more than a slight resemblance to Robin, at least the Robin of old, before she became an emaciated drug victim. Leslie dreams up a seemingly preposterous plan: what if Mary, an aspiring actress, agrees to pass herself off as Robin? No-one in Albuquerque has seen Robin since she was a rebellious teenager, least of all the lawyer who will make the big decision to sign off the bequest to the two grieving daughters.
Tanen Jones has great fun dividing the narrative between three voices, those of Leslie, Mary – and the late Robin. Of course, all is not what it seems to be, and when the counterfeit Robin agrees to go along with the deception, the pair drive back to New Mexico to await the crucial meeting with the lawyer.
Trust is the central issue in tricksy thrillers such as this. Tanen Jones, through her narrators, tells us stuff. But who are we to believe? Is Leslie really a slightly OCD homebody, and what is her cash-flow problem? What about her genial husband Dave? Is he leading a double life? Devoted dad to one year-old Eli, or a serial philanderer?
Alert readers may well figure out what is actually going on well before we get the big reveal, but even if you do, it won’t spoil the enjoyment. Tanen Jones (right) takes a wry look at modern obsessions, including a single mom who earns a living for herself and two little boys by posting stuff on Instagram, the debilitating half life lived by relative strangers messaging each other on social media, and the grim reality of women hooked into relationships with parasitic and abusive men.
One thing is for certain; Tanen Jones has created one of the most devious, damaged and deadly female central characters that I have encountered for many a day. Thing is, though, which one is it, Leslie, Mary or Robin. Who is the better liar?
The Better Liar is published by Harvill Secker and is out now.
Tanen Jones grew up in Texas and North Carolina. She has a degree in American History and spent several years editing law and criminal justice textbooks. She now lives in New York with her partner, and her website is here.
You can also find her on Twitter where she is @TanenJones